Wandering among this year’s Archibald Prize portraits is like being at a party with some of Australia’s coolest people. There are musicians like Archie Roach, Montaigne, Daniel Johns, Omar Musa (also a poet, novelist and woodcut artist) and Joseph Tawadros; actors Sam Neill, Claudia Karvan, Zoe Terakes and Noni Hazlehurst; artists Atong Atem, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Kaylene Whiskey, Abdul Abdullah and Lewis Miller; and sports stars Latrell Mitchell and Harry Garside.

“The thing I’ve noticed about the subject matter in the Archibald this year is [a theme of] creativity,” says the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman curator Anne Ryan.

“More than in previous years, a lot of the subjects in this year’s prize [are] people who create art, whether that’s visual art, writing, performing or music. There’s inevitably going to be people from the visual arts because many artists feel they make their best portraits from people they know well, but people like actors and musicians seem to be capturing the imagination of artists for their shared creativity.”

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The finalists for the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes were today unveiled at the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW), where gallery director Michael Brand noted there had been 2348 entries across the three prizes. Of those, 143 have been selected as finalists.

For the first time in the Archibald Prize’s history there are more women artists than men – 30 to 27 – among the 57 finalists.

“The Archibald Prize is now in its second century, and it took a very long time for a woman to win,” says Ryan, referring to Nora Heysen’s win in 1938. “I think that’s a reflection of our history and the slow evolution of our culture, [but] in 2023 we finally seem to be catching up with the [reality] on the ground.”

There are also more Indigenous artists represented than ever before – 38 across the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prize finalists.

Serial Archibald finalists whose paintings have again made it into this year’s prize include Yvette Coppersmith (the 2018 winner), Natasha Bieniek, Lewis Miller, Tsering Hannaford, Kim Leutwyler and Natasha Walsh. But 40 per cent of finalists are first-timers. There are also nine artists whose works have been selected across more than one prize – including Jason Phu, who is a finalist in all three.

Now in its 102nd year, the Archibald Prize is among Australia’s richest art prizes, with a $100,000 award for the portrait winner, who is selected by the board of trustees and will be announced on May 5 along with the winners of the $50,000 Wynne Prize for landscape and the $40,000 Sulman Prize for best genre, subject or mural painting.

The $3000 Packing Room Prize was also announced today, awarded to Cairns artist and first-time Archibald entrant Andrea Huelin for her portrait Clown Jewels, of New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based comedian Cal Wilson. Following the retirement last year of head packer Brett Cuthbertson, the prize was this year chosen by three of the gallery staff who unpack and hang the entries, Monica Rudhar, Timothy Dale and Alexis Wildman.

“It means such a lot to me, as an artist from a regional centre, to be included in the Archibald, because it will really help me feel more connected to the industry and to my peers, and give me that sense of belonging in my community of Australian painters,” says Huelin, a former journalist and broadcaster who turned to painting later in life.

Huelin contacted Wilson after coming across the comedian’s light-hearted Instagram videos modelling elaborate headpieces she’d made using plastic toys and shiny ornaments.

“I asked if she’d sit for a portrait, and she brought her creativity and imagination as well as a suitcase full of headpieces and outfits. Because I’m a still-life painter, I thought the headpieces were a great way for me to incorporate a still-life element.”

The Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prize finalists will be exhibited at the Art Gallery of NSW from May 6 until September 3, before touring to Victoria and regional NSW.